The Place of the Skull

(This is a poem I wrote for Ash Wednesday 2017. I'm re-running it today even though I had to leave the service before the Imposition of Ashes, so, this year, no smudge for me.)

" Golgotha–Mt Calvary–Israel " by  R. Orville Lyttle  is a Creative Commons image licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.0 .

"Golgotha–Mt Calvary–Israel" by R. Orville Lyttle is a Creative Commons image licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Once more the cross stands
    at the Place of the Skull.

Every year I come here, dragging my load
of cares and failures and dashed hopes,
all singed and smoking,
snatched out of the fire of my waywardness.

Every year I make the resolution
    to improve,
        to advance,
            to clear the decks,
to pull into focus the blurry outlines of my life.
Every year I get smeared with the ashes
    of penitence,
        of reminder
—reminder of my fallenness
    (remember that you are dust)
and of my final destination
        (to dust you shall return)
—ashes shaped into a rough cross
by the thumb of another such as I,
one also marked with this gritty emblem
of love that covers a multitude of sins.

The cross that held the Nazarene
and slowly drained him of a life full of God,
until he himself was emptied
and could no longer sense the Presence
but cried out in forsakenness,
stood on the brow of a hill,
and this ashy cross stands on my brow,
vaguely burning my skin,
telling me of the cost of faithfulness
and the lengths to which love will go.

I don’t love that way. I know few who do.

My love is always a mixed thing, a slurry
of altruism and ego,
a pantomime I act out so selflessly,
all the while watching myself,
from a safe existential distance.

I don’t know that I have ever thrown myself wholly into love;
I always hold something back.
Some indispensable part of my psyche,
    my soul,
        my mind.

These ashes remind me of that reticence
and call me to love dangerously,
    with abandon,
in all the ways that frighten me
and make me long for the safety
of my cocoon.

I will leave this place as I do every year,
feeling that smudge on my forehead
from the ashes of last year’s palms
—the fronds we waved in fond expectation
    of triumph,
        of easy salvation,
            of cheapest grace
—and I will resolve anew
to walk the road with the Son of Man
wherever it will take me,
    even to the Place of the Skull.

I will fail.

But even in my failure I will hear the echo
of those words of grace:
    You are loved.
        You are forgiven.
    I believe in you.
Try again.